Interview With Terry Manning, Legendary Producer and Engineer

Photo by Simon Mott

“Manning is one of the most respected engineers and producers in music history — Led Zeppelin III, the first two Big Star records, Al Green, ZZ Top, the Staple Singers, Albert King, Shakira, Lenny Kravitz, and literally over 100 others have benefitted from his work in either or both capacities.”
–Tom Jurek, All Music Guide

I was honored to get to interview Terry Manning, the legendary producer, engineer and artist. Terry grew up in Texas and started his musical career in El Paso being mentored by his friend and another Texas legend, Bobby Fuller (I Fought the Law). After Bobby Fuller’s death, Terry moved to Memphis and was hired by Steve Cropper to work at the Stax Records studio. His career as an engineer and producer included working at Ardent Studios and Abbey Road and then joining Island Records founder Chris Blackwell at Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas for many years.

Terry has produced or engineered artists such as Led Zeppelin, ZZ Top, Shakira, Lenny Kravitz, Joe Cocker, Wattstax, Alex Chilton, Big Star, James Taylor, Leon Russell, Jason & The Scorchers, Rhino Bucket, George Thorogood and The Destroyers, Joe Walsh, Johnny Winter, The Rainmakers, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Molly Hatchet, The Angels, Johnny Diesel and The Injectors, Jimmy Buffett, Crash Test Dummies, Shania Twain, Bryan Adams, Widespread Panic, and many others.

Terry has recently returned to his roots as a recording and performing artist, recording his critically acclaimed 2013 tribute album to mentor Bobby Fuller, West Texas Skyline. His most recent release is Heaven Knows on his Lucky 7 imprint through ECR Music Group.

Castle: You are releasing Heaven Knows, a new artist album. That’™s a brave undertaking in the current environment. You also recently released West Texas Skyline, your tribute to Bobby Fuller. Speak a little about your inspiration to make these records and what’s the creative direction.

Terry Manning: Ha, I guess it isn’t exactly the “best time in music history” to be going back to being an artist, rather than always working for everyone else as a Producer or Engineer. BUT I don’t look at it as, “When is it a good time,” or “What will the market think of this?” I just do what I feel like I need to do musically to satisfy that inner desire all music makers have to release the emotions from inside, and hope that, in a perfect world, they find someone else, and perhaps touch their heart in some way.

I started out in music as an artist (usually as a member of a band however), but then, because of circumstances, whatever talents I had seemed to be co-opted by other artists, and I wound up producing or engineering or composing for everyone except myself. “Not that there’ s anything wrong with that,” of course; it was fun, musically rewarding, and fortunately provided a living. But always there in the back of the mind is that nagging thought, “What about what you always wanted to do? What about YOUR music?” Of course, in this world we don’t usually get to do just what we want, so I worked for years on other people’s music. Finally, it dawned on me that if I didn’t get things moving, I would never get back to where I always meant to go! It’s just like work if you don’t get started, there is no way you can ever finish.

So, being at a stage of my life and career where I now had a bit more flexibility to choose the projects I wanted to work on for others, but to also schedule some time for myself, I knew it was time to “get going.” The Bobby Fuller tribute album was a good way to get into things again, doing mostly songs associated with Bobby (by the way, he was my first music mentor when I was a young teenager), while I worked on writing new songs for myself. I actually recorded the Heaven Knows album right after finishing West Texas Skyline, they just couldn’t release it that quickly. It was a period of massive creativity, working on things I was more excited about than ever. Eighteen hour days, day after day, and so happy to be back where I had begun.

The inspiration and creative direction of West Texas Skyline is pretty obvious I guess; I was paying tribute to not only Bobby Fuller, but also to HIS influence Buddy Holly, as well as the people, places, and the times of Southwest Texas in those heady days of wild rock & roll. Even the two original songs I wrote for that one (Cold Night In Heaven and West Texas Skyline) were about those very topics.

But much more involved was the inspiration and creative direction for Heaven Knows. There, I wanted to explore the human soul, especially the capacity for love. I wrote about the various stages of being in love, of the yearning for requitement, of the situations in which one displays love, etc. We all undergo life changing events from time to time, perhaps meeting a new person, or finding a new job, or moving to a new city (or even country), any number of things. At times one of these can also affect who and how we love. Shortly after one particular incident, I was inspired to write about it, and literally within just a few minutes, the song Heaven Knows was fully formed. It was like it was dangling out in space in front of me, and all I had to do was catch it, write it down, and record it. All of that happened almost at once. That song inspired another (It’s You), then another from that, and it just kept going…searching ever deeper and deeper into the meaning of what we all as human beings feel inside.

Castle: I know that Compass Point Studios closed, tell us a little about the studio’s history.

Terry Manning: Yes, both for better, and for worse. We of course were one of the most iconic recording studios ever, and not only were many wonderful recordings made there, but we also had just tons of fun doing it. Almost everyone ever associated with CPS, artists, employees, visitors even feel a sort of “familial relationship” to the whole thing. Chris Blackwell of course (founder of Compass Point and of Island Records) would be very responsible for that. He is such a wonderful man, kind and giving, and totally the lover of musical artistry. But at the same time, it was also very much a service industry. By definition we were there to serve OTHER people, other artists.

Again, that was wonderful, almost every minute very enjoyable and fulfilling. But I had done it for a lot of years. The music industry was changing as well, but despite things being tougher than ever for studios, we were blessed with both an enviable history and a beautiful location. However after a couple of incidents happened which were a bit disturbing (local socio-political type things), we decided we should not continue as a public studio in The Bahamas. Chris and I own the brand name, and we are, and will continue using it for certain things. Whether we will ever have a PUBLIC studio again (in another location) is debatable, but we will continue the name and the legacy. Yes, it was sad to see it go in many ways, and yes, we had to cancel almost a year’s worth of bookings when we closed it, but on the good side, it has given me the freedom of time to do, amongst other things, my own music.

Castle: There’s been a lot of commercial pressure on the album as a format ever since iTunes launched. Digital services may like the idea of the musical oeuvre but they seem to think more multi-artist playlist than single artist album. Do you feel that pressure as an artist? Did you ever question whether you should record an album? Do you find this question comes up with artists you work with as a producer or engineer?

Terry Manning: Wow, good questions. Yes, the industry has changed a lot. In some ways it has gone back to where it was in the 50s and 60s, more single oriented, with multi-artist playlists (sort of like AM radio in the day). However, I don’t think the album concept is dead at all. An album (originally a literal multi-paged album book with 10″ 78s put into the envelope-pages, like photographs) is the best way to express a complete musically philosophical thought. One song could do it, but how much better is it to take a concept, and fashion 40-50 minutes worth of music around it? At least that’s what I like to do!

I do love the immediacy of the digital world, the ability to make something one day, and have it available to the whole world the next that was never possible before. Of course the big question is, how to get people to know about it, listen to it, want it, and then hopefully buy it? I can see the validity of releasing a song at a time, and maybe some time I will do that as well. I just really like the album concept statement, there’s nothing else like it.

As for discussing this with production or engineering clients, yes indeed, especially with artists I am producing. One would be foolish to ignore the marketplace and how it operates. Still, I find most artists also look to the album as a total concept.

Castle: If you were starting out as an engineer today, where would you go to learn your craft?

Terry Manning: When I was getting started, there were no “audio engineering schools,” and probably not even any courses in that discipline at the “regular” universities. You had to find someone to mentor you, which meant in most cases meant working in a studio that had professionals already doing the job. In my case I was very fortunate to run across great mentors like Bobby Fuller, Steve Cropper, John Fry, Al Bell, Willie Mitchell, Booker T, etc. Most people aren’t that lucky I guess. But, what to do today?

There are the dedicated “Engineering Schools,” several of which are quite popular. As good as some of them are, I usually don’t recommend to people who ask about it that they go to one of those. There are thousands upon thousands of people going that same road, and the “degree” you get at the end of it may vary from a piece of paper printed in house to a partial “real degree.” I usually recommend that people go to a “regular” university that also offers a program in audio technology, and if they are up to it, also go into the music school. There’s nothing like a real degree from a fully accredited university, something which shows that, in addition to the specialized training received in engineering and/or music, you have a fully rounded education. Or perhaps something like what Berklee has become, that offers multiple disciplines.

But still, there is no substitute for working in a real functioning recording studio where all sorts of different types of clients are coming in every day, all of the work has the pressure associated with it of pleasing the customer, you end up climbing underneath equipment to solve a problem ON THE SESSION, etc. The sad part is, that’s harder and harder to find today, and more and more people are clambering for the positions.

Whatever, I’m so glad I am not starting out today! But if you don’t try, you will definitely never succeed.

Castle: If you wanted to start a recording studio today what does it take in the studio business to survive and even be successful?

Terry Manning: The basic criteria of pleasing the clients will never change. You have to be professional, clean, prompt, and ready to adapt to any situation. Our control rooms at Compass Point would change setups almost daily. One day a rock band doing a normal session, the next an ADR session for a film, the next a massive keyboard setup in the control room, the next a 5.1 surround mix…literally whatever. So adaptability is a big key, as is of course competency in your craft. Situations change quickly, equipment breaks, a noise springs up out of nowhere you must be able to adapt, and with calmness and aplomb. Never let the client know things aren’t perfect!

Now, also there is nothing like market research and a business plan. No matter how much fun this is, or how excited someone gets about having a bunch of cool gear installed, or hanging out with rock stars, nothing matters if at the end of the day you can’t at LEAST break even. So you need to look at the city you are in, and decide, hopefully with good information and research, how much business you can actually get; and determine what your costs will be relative to your income. This IS a business, after all; that’s why they call it “The Music BUSINESS.” It’s both at once, music and business!

And yes, it’s perhaps harder than ever in some ways. There’s more competition, including home recordists, and a smaller pool of label clients. But it’s also less expensive than ever to put in something that is competitive, equipment-wise, if you are smart about it. Still, there is no substitute for a good sounding acoustic environment and good solid high end equipment to achieve high quality.

Castle: What’s your view on the role of a producer in an artist’s career in the current environment? Has the producer’s role changed over the last 10 years?

Terry Manning: The role of a True Producer will never change. In an ideal world, on an ideal project, a good Producer will be bringing out the very best OF an artist, from what the artist has inside them whatever it takes. Sometimes that means just inspiring the player or the vocalist, and sometime it might mean going all the way to “fixing” them where needed, as long as it’s in the intended spirit of the song.

Now today, things have changed somewhat. Many people are calling themselves “producers” when they might not have gathered the requisite skills or credentials. That’s fine, but it is only semantics. The proof is always in the pudding: How good is the music?

But the basic skills required for the job are the ability to see things in both a microscopic and a macroscopic view at the same time, the taste to discern a great performance from a merely very good performance from a poor performance, and ideally, musical skills, will always be the definition of a truly good Producer.

Castle: There’s a popular meme online that anyone can download free software off the Internet and make a record in their bedroom that sounds as good as the Beatles. This skips over the engineer part, but a lot of people think that’s generally true. Since you worked at Abbey Road, how would you respond to that kind of statement?

Terry Manning: Oh yes, I hear this all the time, and I say, “More power to them!” Time will certainly differentiate the wheat from the chaff.

Of course you can spend about $1000 and get everything you need to make some sort of recording. And a few with very great talent might even make a good recording from such equipment. After all, a great song and excellent musical and production skills trumps “gear” any day.

But how many people operating in such an environment have the skills really needed? Not many. And even fewer can do great performances. And even fewer than that can write a great song. Now, having gotten through this not inconsequential part, as I’ve said before, there is no substitute for a good sounding acoustic space. And very few bedrooms or garages come with a great acoustic design built in. Working at a place like Abbey Road, or Compass Point, or any of several other iconic studios can only be a further advantage. Just because you can order some medical instruments online, should you perform your own surgeries? Or extract your own wisdom teeth? And just because you can go down to AutoZone and buy car parts, are you automatically a great mechanic?

I wish everyone in every recording situation the best of luck, but luck alone, paired with a laptop and some cracked plugins, does not a great recording make.

Castle: We hear a lot about the damage that piracy and low royalties have done to artists but rarely ever hear from producers and engineers. What is your experience over the last 10 years or so? Are producers and engineers working about as much as they were before the Internet?

Terry Manning: Hard for me to say, because I do work all the time. Maybe I’m just lucky, or maybe I have earned enough of a reputation to get the work, I don’t know. I hear various stories from out in the field. Some are working a lot, and some are hurting for work.

But there is no doubt that piracy has had some negative effect on the music industry. As long as the labels aren’t selling near as many copies of things as they used to, and therefore lower amounts of revenue are coming in, that affects how much they will be able to spend making future product. That passes down the line to less work for studios, for studio musicians, even the music stores and other industries that cater to studio recordists. None of this is good.

On the other hand, as we’ve said before, decent recording gear costs less, music can be made for less cash outlay, and the Internet provides an amazing platform for release. So there are good things and bad things about the industry today.

But the piracy thing, and in a somewhat similar vein, the steaming outlets with their infinitesimally small pay scale, are certainly not helping foster a robust music industry like we had in some years past.

Castle: Back in 2002, I worked with Leslie Lewis when she was director of the Producers & Engineers Wing of the Recording Academy to get SoundExchange to accept letters of direction so producers could get a share of webcasting royalties. It seems like SoundExchange is one of the only recording royalty streams that producers can count on these days. Do you find that producers are aware that they can negotiate a share of webcasting royalties?

Terry Manning: Actually, no. I don’t think many people are aware of this, producers included. The money may not be huge (yet), but it’s certainly better than nothing! I myself would like to hear more about this, just to be sure that everything possible is put in place. I’m glad someone is trying to help make things right!

After all, every one of us can say #IRespectMusic.
Source: Huff Post

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